The last time the federal government raised the gas tax, President Bill Clinton was in his first term, Cheers was in its last season on television and — in what may have become historic foreshadowing — the movie “Groundhog Day” was released.
Just like in that movie, when actor Bill Murray’s character relived the same day over and over again, so too has Congress relived the same battle repeatedly: how best to invest in the nation’s crumbling highways.
Since 2009, when the last long-term comprehensive highway bill passed by Congress expired, 33 short-term measures aimed at renewing the bill have passed, a peculiar benchmark of dysfunction even by congressional standards.
“It’s shameful what Congress has failed to do,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who said by failing to act, Congress is hurting economic progress.
It’s not that Congress disagrees on whether it needs to invest in infrastructure; for the most part, Democrats and Republicans agree there’s a need to address the nation’s roads and highways.
It’s how to pay for it.
The current system is paid for by the 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax — a revenue-generating mechanism that has been diluted by inflation, by a growing need for new infrastructure and by the fact that more fuel-efficient cars have meant less gas tax revenue.
That revenue has fallen short of the amount needed to pay for the nation’s highways, so Congress periodically has transferred money, typically from the general revenue fund, to offset the deficit.
The result, experts say, has been a patchwork road policy that has done little to address more pressing long-term national needs. It’s the equivalent of filling potholes on a highway that has fundamentally failed.
“Transportation is not a month-to-month concern,” said Frank Moretti of TRIP, a Washington nonprofit aimed at improving traffic conditions. “It needs to be invested in over a period of time, and consistency of funding is very critical.”
Last week, both the House and Senate passed a two-month extension of the current bill, leaving Chris Runyan, president of the Ohio Contractors Association, to lament that he’s never been more discouraged “as far as the lack of enthusiasm or optimism on the part of our legislators to deal with this.”
Runyan had been told that the solution lies in tax reform.
“Well, there’s no way this legislature under the current attitudes up there toward one another are going to successfully pull off tax reform,” he said.
Lawmakers aren’t thrilled with the resolution. Just after the House voted Tuesday on the short-term extension — which wouldn’t put more money in the trust fund, but would extend the federal government’s ability to spend money on the highway program — Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, sent out a statement calling the two-month extension “a clear dereliction of duty.”
Republicans, he said, “have apparently decided that multi-year funding for transportation projects and protecting hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs is no longer worth their time.”
By contrast, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., blamed Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid for choosing “disruption over cooperation on traditionally bipartisan infrastructure policies.”
The short-term extension, McCarthy said, “is not the ideal solution.”
Rep. Gerald Nadler, D-N.Y., was more succinct: “The priorities of this Congress are completely out of whack.”
While last week’s extension was widely ridiculed as a short-term fix, the more pressing problem comes in July, when the Federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to run out of money.
That deadline will have Congress no doubt wrestling with the same problem it has faced for years: how best to pay for the trust fund.
A gas tax increase, Runyan said, is “clearly the most expedient and needed resolution.”
But that’s a nonstarter among Republicans who signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes.
“This is a very tax-averse Congress, to say the least,” said Bud Wright, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
“There are a menu of options” lawmakers can use to fix the Highway Trust Fund, said Brian Pallasch, managing director of government affairs for the American Society of Civil Engineers. But, “I think what’s needed at this point is some leadership and some courage to pick one of those.”
He said drivers end up paying road costs whether the gas tax is increased or not. The average family pays $1,060 in lost wages, lost time from being stuck in traffic and damage to automobiles caused by crumbling roads, he said.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he believes that Congress will ultimately use tax reform to pay for the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
And it is crumbling. A 2013 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers found one out of every nine bridges is structurally deficient and 42 percent of the nation’s major urban highways are congested, costing the economy some $101 billion annually in wasted time and fuel.
“I think most members of Congress get that transportation investment is important to the U.S. economy and the quality of life our citizens want,” said Wright. “But this struggle over revenue is really what is preventing them from getting the job done … this is important. It’s going to affect the U.S. economically if we don’t find a way of enacting a long-term bill.”
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